The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

‘Before the Cities, human life on Earth wasn’t so specialized that they couldn’t break loose and start all over on a raw world. They did it thirty times. But now, Earthmen are all so coddled, so enwombed in their imprisoning caves of steel, that they are caught forever.’ (Dr. Fastolfe)

Elijah Baley is 40 years old, with a long face and brown eyes like a sad cow. He is married to Jessie, has a 16-year-old son, Bentley, and lives in New York, where he is a police detective.

So far, so straightforward. The only catch is… this is all 3,000 years in the future. The population of the earth has ballooned to over 8 billion. Most people now live in the 200 or so megacities which are, like New York, completely covered over and enclosed from the environment. The ‘caves of steel’ of the title refer to these cities, blocked out from sunshine or natural air, hermetically sealed, artificially-lit environments.

Oil ran out centuries ago, so everything is powered by atomic energy. Population density means most people live in communal dormitories and share communal facilities. Meat is occasionally available, but most people most of the time live on rations made on hydroponic farms in Long Island or at the huge yeast vats in New Jersey. Some tobacco is still grown, which allows Elijah to indulge his habit of smoking a pipe, but it’s getting rarer and more expensive.

Elijah is a grade C-5. Everyone in the city is graded and their grade entitles them to specific types of accommodation, food and so on. Baley has never got over the way his father was blamed for an accident in a power station and went from being a high-grade physicist to becoming ‘declassified’ – forced to do manual labour, becoming a drunk, dying when Elijah was just 8.

You might have thought that’s enough to be going on with, but all this is just background. There are two other big developments which dominate the book: one is the invention and perfection of ‘the positronic brain’ which has allowed the development of very nearly lifelike robots. This much I expected from a novel which I knew to be part of Asimov’s ‘robot’ series of stories and novels.

What I hadn’t at all anticipated was the central importance of the ‘Spacers’. For it turns out that mankind has, for some time, been colonising other planets, occupying some 50 to date, and taking advantage of the invention of ‘hyperspace travel’.

The colonies are much more sparsely populated than earth, which is one reason why the ‘Spacers’ have developed a significantly different culture from Earthers. The Spacers have more space to live in, and robots are completely integrated into their society, meaning most of them lead lives of luxury.

So wide has the gap grown between Earthers and Spacers that, a hundred years before the story starts, Earth riots in which some Spacers were killed led a fleet of Spacer ships to retaliate. In the war that followed the ramshackle old Earth ships were simply vaporised, Space technology being far more advanced. Now the Spacers don’t exactly rule the Earthers, they just intimidate them.

For the Spacers have built settlements just outside most of the big cities – Spacetowns – protected by security guards and airlocks to prevent earth infections being passed to the prim and pure Spacers. All this explains why gritty Earther types like detective Baley really hate Spacers.

The plot

So much for the background. The plot is straightforward detective fodder – in fact, Asimov is on record as saying the book (and its sequels) were attempts to show that science fiction isn’t a genre, but a subject which could be applied to any genre. Here he is trying to prove it with this detective story set in the future.

A Spacer is found murdered. Not just any old Spacer, but Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador and robot designer.

In the classic style, Baley is called in by his harassed overworked boss, Commissioner Julius Enderby, and told that a) he, Baley, has been given the case to solve – which disgruntles him, because he hates Spaces and b) he has also been lumbered with a new generation robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, to be his assistant.

The story, then, is not only about Baley’s attempts to solve the crime – but equally as much about him overcoming his dislike of Spacers and his loathing of robots.

The book proceeds through a variety of scenes which I felt I have seen hundreds of times, in countless American TV cop shows and crime thrillers. The basic pattern is Baley goes out, has an encounter or adventure, comes back and reports it to his increasingly exasperated boss, before going home to his worried wife.

Initially, the story is about confrontations and menace. Baley and Daneel get caught up in a minor riot in a department store when robots refuse to serve a customer and an anti-robot crowd assembles and threatens violence until Daneel jumps on a table and threatens to blast them all. The crowd disperses. Baley is appalled since Daneel’s behaviour breaks the First Law of Robotics. We are introduced to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which feature in all the robot novels and stories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

When he learns that Daneel is so perfectly human in appearance because he is an identical copy of his designer, Sarton, the incident in the shop leads Baley to make a rash declaration in front of a Spacer officer, Dr Fastolfe, and with his boss present via hologram, that Daneel is actually a human and that the dead body of Sarton was actually a robot.

This stab in the dark is quickly disproved when Daneel unpeels some of his skin to reveal his robotic metal and wire interior. Baley faints. When he comes round he’s aware that Daneel has just slipped a hypno-sliver into his bloodstream. It was a drug which makes him vulnerable to suggestions, and Dr Fastolfe, gives a speech explaining how earth could overcome its paranoid crammed culture by mass migration to the planets, which Baley finds himself agreeing with.

A later scene has a good, movie-style excitement to it. Baley and Daneel are travelling on the complicated moving sidewalks. these run at different speeds, winding in and out of each other throughout the city’s vast expanse, meaning that pedestrians are continually having to leap from one to the next, or across several moving strips to get to the one they need (you can see why this is a totally impractical idea, though it does have tremendous visual possibilities.)

Daneel identifies that they are being followed – always a key ingredient in a thriller, and then that some of the followers were in the almost-riot at the shop. Baley then leads the pursuers a merry chase by hopping across and onto a complex sequence of moving sidewalks, before arriving at a vast power station, where one of the suspects has been identified as working.

The next major event is that one of the robots which was used in the police offices, R. Sammy, is found dead or, more precisely, has had its positronic brain scrambled by a nuclear wand.

Commissioner Enderby is as upset about this as anyone else, and then begins slowly and regretfully pointing out to Baley that he, Baley, is looking like a prime suspect. Baley hates robots. Baley was always complaining about R. Sammy. And the nuclear wand which scrambled him has been traced back to the same power plant Baley visited earlier that day.

In the novel’s climactic scene, confronted by his boss accusing him of the murder, Baley proves that Enderby did it. But no-one can smuggle atom blasters into Spacertown, and he certainly couldn’t obtain one inside. How did he do it? Baley shows that Enderby ordered R. Sammy to carry an atom blaster out of one of the city’s 500 or so exits, go across country to Spacertown, enter Spacertown at a different place from Enderby, rendezvous with Enderby and hand him the blaster. Enderby then intended to blast the new super-advanced robot he had heard that Sarton had just developed. Unfortunately, Enderby wears glasses, it is part of his pose of preferring the ‘good old days’, an attitude sometimes described as Medievalism. In his nervousness at performing an act of violence (relatively rare in the future) Enderby drops his glasses which shatter. At that moment, in a panic, the door to Sarton’s apartment opens and Enderby, thinking it is the robot, blasts Sartor, disintegrating the top half of his body. Then stumbles back to where R. Sammy was waiting, gives him the blaster, R. Sammy makes his own way out of the city, leaving Enderby to be allowed to leave the city with no weapon. The alarm about Sartor’s murder was only raised an hour or so later, once Enderby was well clear.

Assessment

Asimov makes what I take to be an elementary mistake of thriller writers, which is – he tries to make the plot too convoluted. I won’t describe the convolutions here but there are plenty of other incidents – such as Baley’s wife Jessie somehow discovering that Daneel is a robot (which is meant to be a well kept secret); and the evening when, after being followed, Daneel and Baley hole up in a police ‘safe apartment’ from ‘them’, whoever it is that’s pursuing them – only for Baley’s son, Bentley, to pretty easily find him and get admitted to the apartment… There are a number of false trails and fake leads designed to puzzle Baley, and the reader.

But the big, big, big problem with the book is that the elaborate motivation Asimov provides for the murder – and its wider consequences – doesn’t make sense, even on Asimov’s own terms.

In the last pages Asimov/Baley pulls it all together by saying that: Enderby is a member of a secret society of Medievalists. His preference for glasses and for having ‘windows’ in his office proves this. Medievalists want to rid the world of robots, end the cities and return everyone to living on the land, like in the good old days.

Because of his regular contacts with Spacers he knew that Sarton had developed a new generation robot, indistinguishable from a human, and so his group of Medievalists allotted him the task of destroying it. But, as we’ve seen, he muffed the job and killed the human inventor instead.

The fact that his murder relied so heavily on R. Sammy explains why it was Enderby who scrambled him, and planted the nuclear wand to discredit Baley.

But it turns out that the Spacers have a political aim as well. Some of them feel Spacer culture is stagnant or declining. They want to persuade Earthers to migrate and inject new blood into Spacer colonies. They want to encourage humans to leave overcrowded earth.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense. Both Enderby and Baley dislike robots and Baley hates Spacers. And yet the final pages of the book try to persuade us that both Baley and Enderby come round to agreeing with the Spacers… and here’s the thing which really doesn’t make sense: they try to persuade us that Enderby’s anti-robot, anti-Spacer, back-to-the-soil Medievalism can be converted into a belief that humans can go back to the soil… in off-world colonies. That the Medievalists’ anti-science and technology stance can be twisted round into a wish to adopt modern science and technology.

All the paraphernalia of the detective thriller (right at the end Baley has just 90 minutes to prove his theory before Daneel is taken off the case, which injects some traditional urgency and suspense) cannot conceal the fact that, at the end, it becomes utterly incoherent and illogical. Like the Foundation stories, the conclusion feels forced and contrived.

Futuristic features

Future novels like this have two elements. One is the plot which, as I’ve explained, although frenetic is, in the end, deeply disappointing.

But the other, and possibly more gripping element for SF fans, is the throwaway references to all kinds of intriguing aspects of life 3,000 years hence, the references to inventions and gadgets which help to create and pad out a plausible imaginary world.

  • atom blasters – equivalent of handguns
  • cerebroanalysis –  the interpretation of the electromagnetic fields of the living brain cells
  • hypo-sliver – futuristic version of an injection
  • Medievalism – widespread belief in the superiority of the good old days, when people did not live in ‘caves of steel’
  • plastofilm – what Elijah slips on his feet instead of slippers
  • retch gas – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • somno vapour – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • spy-beam – high-powered microphones for eavesdropping
  • strips – moving walkways which pedestrians have to jump between to change speed or direction
  • subetheric hand disruptors – Space weapons
  • trimensional personification – appearing by hologram
  • zymoveal – food made mostly from fungus

Bigger in scale than these gadgets, and far more interesting than the ‘plot’ is Asimov’s imagining of future customs and conventions. Apparently, a massive taboo has arisen about people’s behaviour in the communal washrooms, namely that it is extremely rude to look at or even acknowledge someone else washing.

Powerful is Asimov’s imagining of how the inhabitants of the steel caves have, over the centuries, developed a deep phobia about being ‘outside’, about being stuck under the open sky and exposed to the elements. Baley has panic attacks when he thinks about it.

Similarly, it’s an imaginative stroke that the Spacers are not only scared of catching earth germs and diseases from inhabitants of the packed, unhygienic cities – so far, so logical – but that this has developed into physical repulsion at the presence of Earthers, who Spacers have come to believe smell and are intrinsically dirty. It is almost a kind of racism, and it is imaginative insights like this into the psychology of his future worlds which make Asimov’s books worth reading. Not the plots, though.

Covers

When you borrow or buy these old books, the modern cover illustrations might mislead you into thinking they are in any way up to date or ‘serious’. But a quick glance at the original covers of the magazines which these stories appeared in makes you realise in a flash what cheap pulp audiences they were originally aimed at, and what a mistake it is to expect too much from them in the way of writing, psychology or thought.

Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel after completing the Foundation stories. It was serialised in Galaxy magazine, from October to December 1953, and published in book form in 1954. This cover brings out the sense of a) the completely enclosed nature of the cities and b) the highly visual impact of the moving walkways. It is in the details and appurtenances of his stories that Asimov strikes deepest.

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953


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1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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1 Comment

  1. I remember loving the Robot books (and all Asimov books) when I was a teen and just getting into sci-fi. I probably read this book too, but don’t remember any of the plot. Time for a reread!

    Reply

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